Can you imagine a nativity scene without Mary, without Joseph, and without even Baby Jesus? That is what is happening in the small town of Beaucaire – because the mayor wants to circumvent a 100-year-old French secularisation law.
This prohibits the installation of religious symbols, such as a newborn in a manger, in public buildings, in order to keep public service neutral. After having been convicted on several occasions, the municipality decided this year to keep the nativity scene inside the town hall, but without its main characters.
“They sue us three or four times a year for this beautiful cultural exhibition. What sense of priorities do these people have?” complained the mayor. These ‘people’ are, in fact, the prefecture, the representative of the French state, who regularly takes the municipality of Beaucaire to court for not respecting secularism.
Since their election less than ten years ago, a new wave of far-right mayors has decided to turn nativity scenes into a battlefield, by installing them in their town halls. In their eyes, it is not a religious symbol but a cultural tradition.
Their vision of secularism is also very flexible. They are its most ardent defenders of neutrality when it comes to prohibiting the construction of a mosque, yet they do not hesitate to violate it when it comes to Christian tradition.
Robert Ménard, the mayor of Béziers who started the trend of nativity scenes in town halls, was not only convicted of not respecting secularism. He was also found guilty of ‘provocation to hatred’ in 2017 for saying that there were too many Muslim children in his town’s schools.
This obsession with nativity scenes does not stem from a simple love of the Christmas spirit, as some far-right mayors would have us believe. It is part of a xenophobic and Islamophobic political agenda.